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Active Learning

Problem solving and the use of causal models

If we engage students in activities to facilitate learning, what exactly do we have them active doing? As our redesign has evolved, we have arrived at more focused and intersting answers to this question.

Traditional views of the scientific method describe a cycling "formula" of observation, hypothesis, prediction, experiment/observation, interpretation and revision of hypothesis.

This process involves many steps and skills.

Most formidable is the first step of moving from an initial observation to a hypothesis. For sciencists, this step occurs in the context of a vast scientific literature. Expecting students to develop good hypotheses, or models to explain phenomenon is an especially challenging place to start, given students' limited exposure to scientific literature.

Instead, we have focused on giving students opportunities to use hypotheses developed by the scientific community to predict outcomes or interpret results.

Constructivism and Practice

We have used the philosophical foundations of contructivism to design a classroom experience for students where they are given many opportunities to actively work on problems, verbalize ideas with classmates and the teacher, revise their ideas, and practice important intellectual skills.

Much of our approach is centered in the simple idea that developing intellectual skills takes practice, and at the start, before students have had any practice, they are likely to do poorly, make mistakes, and have signficant holes in their efforts. Providing "safe" opportunities for students to fail, make mistakes and learn from their mistakes to improve performance is critical

We create "constructive discomfort" where we confront students with challenging problems to solve, expecting them to struggle. However, because the struggle is encouraged and gains in understanding are rewarded, students can make use of early mistakes to:

  • identify gaps in their understanding.
  • discuss their current understanding with classmates
  • see a intellectual goal within the problem space, and understand how close they are to that goal.

Many students arrive in science classes thinking there is just right and wrong. We spend considerable time asking student to recognize the difference between good answers and not so good answers and to build arguments to support answers they consider good.






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Steven D. Brewer -- sbrewer@bio.umass.edu
Elizabeth Connor -- econnor@bio.umass.edu
Steve Goodwin -- sgoodwin@microbio.umass.edu
Tom Hoogendyk -- tomh@bio.umass.edu
Randall Phillis -- rphillis@bio.umass.edu
BIOLOGY DEPARTMENT, UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS AMHERST